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April 15, 2014 at 4:22 PM

Lime shortage puts the squeeze on local bars and restaurants

A lime garnish? You won't see that anymore on your cocktail with this lime shortage. Photo by Genevieve Alvarez / The Seattle Times

A lime garnish? You won’t see that anymore on your cocktail with this lime shortage. Photo by Genevieve Alvarez / The Seattle Times

You may not be familiar with “limepocalypse” but if you eat out, and especially if you drink out, you felt it – through your wallet or through your taste buds. Something doesn’t taste right.

There is a  lime crisis, with bad weather and a disease killing citrus trees, which has  caused a shortage in Mexico, the world’s largest lime producer and exporter.

A case (175 limes) goes for around $110-$130, three times higher than what it cost in February.  And to make matters worse, bartenders complain that  due to the poor crop, the lime produces only a half-ounce of juice. (It’s an ounce per lime in a good year.)

In recent months, the price of limes has skyrocketed. In a story that’s stranger than fiction, the Mexican drug cartels now are hijacking lime trucks and selling limes on the black market.

If you don’t think this affects you, check your favorite watering hole or your local Mexican and Vietnamese restaurants. Some taco trucks now serve a wedge of lemon with carnitas tacos.

At some Vietnamese restaurants,  pho, which usually comes with a side of bean sprouts, herbs and lime, now either comes with lemon or no citrus at all.

The bar industry has been hit harder. Some bar owners are absorbing the cost. But others have passed it on to consumers or taken the lime cocktails off the menu.

On Capitol Hill, The Tin Table charges $1 to $1.50 more for cocktails with lime juice and an extra $1 if you want a lime garnish. Among the drinks it jacked up is the Moscow Mule, easily the most popular vodka drink in Seattle.

Mules – gin, ginger beer and lime – are a big money generator for many bars – as long as the price of lime is low.

At the hotel bar Sazerac in downtown, Chef Jason McClure found a creative way to get around the crisis.  The chef uses verjus, (pressed juice of an unripe grape) to mimic the lime  acidity for the Moscow Mule. In another cocktail, he used Champagne vinegar and cucumber mint as a lime substitute. (Most chefs and bartenders don’t use bottled pasteurized lime juice, which doesn’t taste like fresh squeezed lime.)

Other bars have just soured, ahem, on lime.  Brass Tacks in Georgetown, for instance, took off  a cocktail that requires an ounce of lime.  And management said the new cocktail menu debuting soon will showcase only cocktails with little or no lime juice.

Barrio, which arguably sells more margaritas than any other bars on Capitol Hill, has stopped garnishing its signature cocktail with lime wheels, a move that management said saves about a case of lime a week.

Come to think of it, I can’t recall any bar using a lime garnish on a gin-and-tonic or a diet coke in the last five weeks around Seattle.

The lime crisis was a triple blow to Ba Bar in the Central District. Its most popular food (pho), most popular cocktail (Moscow Mule) and  most popular dipping sauce  (fish sauce) all require lime.  The restaurant goes through at least a case (175 limes) a day, said owner Eric Banh. Banh hasn’t raised prices but he has replaced lime with lemon as a side to his bowl of pho.

The limes on the market taste awful compared to last year’s crop, he said  “This is the worst I’ve ever seen. We started experimenting with lemon, the acidity is softer. And we did it for consistency.”

The worst may be yet to come. We’re getting into shorts-and-sandal season, when margaritas,  daiquiris and mojitos – all lime cocktails – become popular.  These summer libations may cost you more.

Comments | Topics: Ba Bar, Brass Tacks, limepocalypse

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